Illegal sturgeon fishing target of new awareness campaign

Awareness campaign is good news for researchers who say sturgeon population in the Detroit River nearly disappeared about 10 years ago when decades of dredging and over fishing nearly obliterated fish populations.

Reducing illegal fishing is good news for researchers studying the return of popular sturgeon in Detroit River

University of Windsor associate professor Trevor Pitcher studies how successful artificial reefs have been in returning sturgeon populations. (Trevor Pitcher)

Police and fishermen are cracking down on illegal sturgeon fishing in Ontario by launching a new awareness campaign on the weekend.

Crime Stoppers in both Canada and the U.S. have teamed up with the Great Lakes Fishery Commission for the campaign that aims to make people aware that killing and selling wildlife is illegal.

The campaign is good news to people like Trevor Pitcher, an associate professor of biology at the University of Windsor who has studied the successful return of sturgeon in the Detroit River. 

The fish nearly disappeared about 10 years ago when decades of dredging ruined natural spawning beds.

"Sturgeon existed in fairly reasonable numbers, but no offspring were produced for the next generation because they had nowhere to spawn," Pitcher told CBC's Windsor Morning.

But, artificial reefs were dropped into the river, which created new spawning waterbeds. The fish are now thriving.

"With the right habitat, they can do quite well," Pitcher said.

Illegal figures

The Fishery Commission estimates the number of sturgeon caught illegally every year is equal to the number caught legally. 

"The illegal trade of wildlife is the fourth most lucrative criminal activity world-wide, only exceeded by the trade of narcotics, counterfeiting and human trafficking," said David Forster, president of the Ontario Association of Crime Stoppers.

The awareness campaign encourages the public to report illegal fishing in order to protect the sturgeon populations, explained Robert Heckey, chairman of the Fishery Commission. 

"We are at a crossroads," he said. "Decisions that people make to break the chain of illegal activities will decide the fate of this species. I believe people, given the information, will do the right thing."

Detroit River sturgeon

Researchers regularly monitor the health of sturgeon in the Detroit River. Here are a few images from their work this week: 

A new awareness campaign against illegal sturgeon fishing relies on the public reporting any activity they see.
Researchers on Friday showed off a sturgeon to hundreds of school children passing by on the Detroit River.
Lake sturgeon belong to a prehistoric family of fish that has survived for more than 60 million years.